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NorCal high school mountain bike team teaches teens life lessons

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Sports offer unique opportunities to learn teamwork and discipline, and to experience the rewards that come from pushing yourself past your limits. But in high school sports, such opportunities are limited for novice or casual athletes.

That’s not the case with Norcal High School Cycling League. All comers are equally welcome, and all equally participate. No one sits on the bench. You don’t need to be athletically gifted or skilled. All you need is a willingness to work (oh, and supportive parents are pretty important, too).

Cycling is simple that way. If you work hard and persevere, you will improve. How’s that for a great life lesson?

Some years back, a new kid — call him Ishmael — joined a team for which I was a volunteer coach. He was a shy, nervous, awkward young man with some quirks that no doubt hindered him socially. He showed up on a rickety bike, out-of-shape and with zero skills. I considered him a project, and hoped that in cycling he could find a source of confidence and, it gags me to say it, self-esteem.

The other kids on the team were cordial and encouraging, and he took coaching well. Once, before a practice, I told him, “Anticipate your shifts. Keep your cadence up. Momentum is your friend.”

After the practice, I asked him what he learned. “Anticipate your shifts, keep your cadence up and momentum in your friend!” For the first time in my life, I’d found someone who listened to me.

But mountain biking is hard, and it was tough for him. I half expected him to start missing practices and eventually slide off the radar altogether. But Ishmael stuck with it. He was a steady worker, and was always willing to squeeze in one more rep before dusk.

In team sports, half the participants are winners. In cycling, by contrast, only an exceptional few stand on the podium. Yet for every rider, a bike race offers this most valuable opportunity: Not to be the best, but to be your best. Your name may appear near the bottom of the results and yet on a personal level, you can still accomplish something great. Some of my best finishes have been my worst.

Ishmael’s first few races went exactly as you’d expect. He was a straggler at the back of the pack. Over the course of the season, he encountered the pain of sustained, intense physical effort, endured it, pressed into it. And to everyone’s surprise, Ishmael somehow qualified for the State Championships. Still, as the season wrapped up in the spring, I wondered if he’d be back next year.

Fast forward to the first practice of the next season. Ishmael rolled in looking older, taller, relaxed and with a new air of confidence. He’d been training over the summer, working at getting better.

Being a part of the team had changed him, and for the good. Years later, he’s still riding and still competing. I see him from time to time, and am always impressed with his continued growth as a young man. The real value of the Norcal High School Cycling League lies in stories like his.

Singletrack High is a wonderful one-hour documentary that accurately captures the spirit of the Norcal High School Cycling League, and features some real Petalumans. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll become a part of it. To stream it, go to vimeo.com, and search for “Singletrack High.”

If you’re interested in high school mountain bike racing, check out norcalmtb.org. For specific inquiries, contact Vanessa Hauswald at vanessa@norcalmtb.org.

(Matt Muldoon is active in the Petaluma cycling community. He is a member of the Petaluma Wheelmen cycling club and a volunteer coach with the Casa Grande High School bike team.)